February 6, 2009
Updated bottle bill would protect our parks
Carol Ash has been the commissioner of the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation since 2007, overseeing 213 state parks and historic sites.
When Gov. David A. Paterson submitted his executive budget in December, he did so knowing that we're facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He acknowledged that New York State has its largest budget deficit in history and that scores of difficult decisions will have to be made over the coming months. These challenging times call for both sacrifice and greater efficiency.
They also provide an opportunity to make meaningful, common-sense decisions. Perhaps the easiest decision to be made during the next several months is updating New York's 27-year-old bottle-return law.
While the original bottle bill has been an enormously successful environmental-protection measure, reducing beach and roadside litter by 70 percent and increasing recycling rates, it didn't cover noncarbonated beverage containers like water, iced tea, juice and sport drinks. Today, single-serve bottles of water are the fastest-growing beverage choice in the country, and nearly 2.5 billion bottles of water are sold in New York every year.
Far too many containers not covered by the law are discarded in our state's parks, on our beaches and along our trails. In fact, the Northeast chapter of the American Littoral Society found that non-deposit beverage containers make up two-thirds of the discarded containers recovered in the organization's beach cleanups. Expanding the bottle return law would provide an incentive to keep these containers from being tossed aside.
New York's bottle-return law has triggered the recycling of 90 billion containers and 6 million tons of glass, aluminum and plastic over the past 27 years. By recycling these materials, rather than producing new ones, the law has saved more than 50 million barrels of oil - equal to getting 600,000 cars off the road for one year. The expanded law would save another million barrels of oil and eliminate thousands of tons of greenhouse gases every year by diverting plastic and metal from the waste stream and using these recycled materials, rather than new materials, in the manufacturing of products. The law would also expand the stream of clean, source-separated recyclables that sustains New York's recycling industry.
What's more, an updated bottle-return law would safeguard the state's Environmental Protection Fund from sharply falling state revenue. The governor's proposal would place all unclaimed deposits in the EPF. Currently, when the nickel deposits on beer or soda containers go unclaimed, the beverage maker retains the five cents. With the governor's proposal, the money would be returned to the state - providing a projected $118 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year for parks, open space, farmland protection, cleaning up lakes and rivers, waste prevention and other environmental programs that are jeopardized by the fiscal crisis.
Make no mistake about it: The state's ability to pay for the environmentally beneficial projects funded by the EPF are truly jeopardized by New York's unprecedented fiscal crisis. Placing in the EPF the millions of dollars in unclaimed nickels that have historically been kept by the beverage industry is one realistic way to replace scarce state revenue.
While the environmental and economic benefits to the state have long been touted, this proposal also addresses a concern raised by some in the business community. The proposal increases the handling fee paid to stores and redemption centers from 2 cents to 3.5 cents per container. This increase will more fairly compensate retailers for the cost of storing and handling empty containers, while helping redemption centers grow and expand in New York State - encouraging small business development and expanding consumers' options for redeeming empty beverage containers.
The State Legislature should adopt Paterson's budget proposal to finally include noncarbonated beverage containers. While there will be many tough decisions to make in the coming weeks to address our serious economic crisis, updating the bottle-return law is an easy one.